Aztec Ruins
Administrative History
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At the conclusion of each excavation season from 1916 through 1919, artifacts recovered from the West Ruin were packed, taken by freight wagon to the nearest railhead, and shipped by train to New York. As the excavation drew to a close in the early 1920s, most items, other than human remains, were kept at the site, either because they duplicated those already at the museum or because their weight or shape made shipment impractical. A total of 5,220 specimens eventually were deposited in the American Museum of Natural History. [1] Because he was concerned about rough treatment from those who did not share his personal involvement, for the first three seasons Earl Morris went East to take charge of unpacking the boxes.

Some exhibits of Aztec Ruin finds were arranged. Early in the program, these were for staff only. During the 1920s, permanent exhibitions were installed in the museum's Southwest Hall. So far as is known, all that was included were two cases of pottery and a large model of the ruin (see Figure 13.1). How long these displays were mounted is unknown. [2]

model of West Ruin
Figure 13.1. Model of the West Ruin prepared for exhibition
at the American Museum of Natural History.

In the 1950s, the Southwest Hall at the museum was closed. All the Aztec Ruin materials then were relegated to an archeological heaven filled with rows of identical metal storage cabinets holding the rich hauls of Anasazi material goods from Grand Gulch (1893-94, 1899), Chaco Canyon (1896-99), and Canyon del Muerto (1923-28). These were finds which were instrumental in igniting the fires of scientific and lay interest in the prehistory of the Colorado Plateau. Twenty-three similar cabinets were needed for the Aztec Ruin collection. One tray in these cabinets was filled with the results of Nels Nelson's test trench in the southeast refuse mound at the Aztec Ruin. A 24th cabinet contained a pottery collection from the lower La Plata valley of New Mexico, which it is assumed was that sold by Morris to the American Museum to finance his graduate studies at Columbia University during the academic year of 1916-17.

In Morris's opinion, the Aztec Ruin collection at the American Museum represented the best artifacts retrieved in terms of workmanship, physical condition, uniqueness, or characteristic features. He wrote Wissler, "I culled the cream in the way of especially fine and unusual objects, and sent them on to you." [3] Morris made the selection to give the donor who underwrote the project tangible returns for his investment and to cement his own reputation with the museum as a producer. He emphasized intact objects or those sufficiently complete to be identifiable and therefore suitable for display. The scraps of household sweepings and everyday discards such as form the bulk of most archeological field collections were noticeably absent. When saved, those were among specimens left at Aztec.

There is some basis for being critical of this attitude because an on-site museum always was in the background of long-range plans. Perhaps Morris and Wissler regarded the Abrams allotment as sufficiently diversified to adequately stock such a facility. Morris's own appraisal of what was left at the ruin was expressed candidly in response to an inquiry from Wissler. "The bulk of the stuff [remaining at Aztec Ruin], aside, of course, from some good pottery, would be of great value for study, but most unprepossessing for exhibition." [4]

The collection in New York is eminently suitable for both display and study. Morris published one paper describing artifacts obtained during the first two seasons in what was one of the earliest descriptive reports of Anasazi material culture from the San Juan Basin. [5] The collection was greatly augmented thereafter and has never been analyzed. Although Morris intended to prepare a detailed monograph covering the total assortment, the pressures of other work, the loss of some notes, and family illness prevented him from doing so. Despite the passage of time, a straightforward account of these items still would be of interest in order to fill gaps in the inventories of Anasazi worldly goods. But perhaps of more value would be expanded studies in the light of recent research, using the Aztec data as a base.

For example, Morris based his theory of sequential occupations of the West Ruin on a number of stratified deposits wherein, according to his interpretation, Chacoan refuse was beneath, and therefore older than, Mesa Verdian refuse. Other than pottery, he failed to identify or describe specific cultural items that might distinguish the two. His separation of the complexes of artifacts was not done on mere intuition but on field experience and familiarity with the results of other research. Much of that research remained unpublished and unavailable to those outside the inner circle of field workers.

It has been the sad history of San Juan archeology that publication has lagged many years behind field work. The Hyde Expedition work at Pueblo Bonito during the 1890s was published in 1920, and National Geographic Society excavation studies at the same site in the 1920s did not appear in print until 1954, just two years before Morris died. An artifact collection with some relevance to Aztec Ruin recovered in 1947 at Chetro Ketl in Chaco Canyon finally was described in a publication in 1978. At Mesa Verde, modern research began to catch up with past "relic" collecting during the 1950s and 1960s, when the National Park Service and the University of Colorado unearthed and published on findings of the local aboriginal material culture. The large, culturally related Salmon Ruins west of Bloomfield, New Mexico, was excavated but only partially reported on in the following decade. A comprehensive interpretive report is yet to come.

However, now a century after discovery and earliest exploration, it might be possible to detail contrasting diagnostic elements of each major contributor to the Aztec Ruin story -- Chaco and Mesa Verde. Through such sorting out of material possessions, insight into degree, kind, and length of occupancy of the house block might result. The cultural biases peculiar to each occupation might be defined. The results of the 10-year study in the 1970s of Chaco Canyon archeology reveal the complex of Aztec Ruins as the most important outlying aggregate settlement at a distance from the canyon proper but contributing in undetermined socio-economic ways to the well-being of the core communities. This revelation underscores the need to understand exactly what constituted Chacoan material culture at Aztec Ruins and whether it represented a colonial transfer of actual goods or an imitative process by persons already living away from the principal Chaco center.

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Last Updated: 28-Aug-2006